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The RNC is severing ties with the nonprofit that runs presidential debates

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

General election presidential debates could be over or at least general election presidential debates that are organized in the way that we have known in recent decades. Yesterday, the Republican National Committee voted to withdraw from the nonprofit Commission on Presidential Debates, which has run debates since the '80s. NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro has watched many of those debates and is with us now. Good morning.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What happened here?

MONTANARO: Well, the RNC decided Thursday to sever ties with this debate commission. They'll now be requiring all presidential candidates to say in writing that they'll only take part in debates OK'd by the RNC. RNC chair Ronna McDaniel charges that the commission has been unfair on choices of moderators, timing of debates and that the commission won't agree to reforms that Republicans want. Here's what she said at the RNC's winter meeting earlier this year about it.

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RONNA MCDANIEL: The Republican Party deserves better. The American people deserve better because we know - we all know this - that if we have a free and fair forum, we win because our policies are the best for the American people.

MONTANARO: Now, I reached out to the debate commission for comment, but they're not commenting yet. In response in January to the RNC's threat to do this, the commission did say that it would be dealing directly with candidates and that their plans for 2024 would be, quote, "based on fairness, neutrality and a firm commitment to help the American public learn about the candidates and the issues."

INSKEEP: You know, when I heard this news yesterday, Domenico, my first question was whether this was driven by Donald Trump because he completely dominates the party. The RNC chair is someone who literally changed her name for Trump's convenience. So was this driven by Trump?

MONTANARO: It's because she's Mitt Romney's niece, and Romney is in the middle of it. Yeah, but...

INSKEEP: True.

MONTANARO: ...Republicans have had problems with the commission since at least 2012 when then-party nominee Mitt Romney was fact-checked in real time. But Trump has really been the catalyst for what's happening here. And, you know, in 2020, he attacked moderators in the commission which he accused of being stacked with Trump haters, continuously interrupted in those debates, violated the rules of decorum but accused the commission of shutting off microphones, veering off from topics that he says were supposed to be the focus. The commission's co-chair, Frank Fahrenkopf, said, at the time, that's not what was happening at all and defended the commission before the second general election debate in 2020 this way on MSNBC.

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FRANK FAHRENKOPF: We are nonpartisan. We're doing something that we think is in the best interest of the American people to get some order in this debate, that it'll hopefully enforce the rules so that they can hear the candidates without interruption and get to learn where they are on these issues that are so important going into this election.

MONTANARO: And Fahrenkopf has been involved with the commission since its inception, and he's ironically a Republican and a former chairman of the RNC himself. It just shows you how much this party has really changed over the years. And the reality here - in politics, if people are complaining about debates, they're usually the ones losing. And at that point in 2020, Trump was really struggling in the polls and needed a boost.

INSKEEP: OK. So he was complaining then. People are complaining now. Are presidential debates, as we know them, dead?

MONTANARO: Not necessarily. RNC chair McDaniel said that she wants debates, just not with this commission. Ultimately, it's going to be up to the candidates. There's no incentive, really, for the candidates to cross the RNC, though. And, you know, broadcast networks run party-sanctioned debates in primaries. So they can just move to that model in the general election. But it's still going to take candidates to agree on rules, moderators and which network will run it, so lots to be decided here.

INSKEEP: NPR's Domenico Montanaro, thanks.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.